What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Tax plan possibilities

Mar 26, JDN 2457839

Recently President Trump (that phrase may never quite feel right) began presenting his new tax plan. To be honest, it’s not as ridiculous as I had imagined it might be. I mean, it’s still not very good, but it’s probably better than Reagan’s tax plan his last year in office, and it’s not nearly as absurd as the half-baked plan Trump originally proposed during the campaign.

But it got me thinking about the incredible untapped potential of our tax system—the things we could achieve as a nation, if we were willing to really commit to them and raise taxes accordingly.

A few years back I proposed a progressive tax system based upon logarithmic utility. I now have a catchy name for that tax proposal; I call it the logtax. It depends on two parameters—a poverty level, at which the tax rate goes to zero; and what I like to call a metarate—the fundamental rate that sets all the actual tax rates by the formula.

For the poverty level, I suggest we use the highest 2-household poverty level set by the Department of Health and Human Services: Because of Alaska’s high prices, that’s the Alaska poverty level, and the resulting figure is $20,290—let’s round to $20,000.

I would actually prefer to calculate taxes on an individual basis—I see no reason to incentivize particular household arrangements—but as current taxes are calculated on a household basis, I’m going to use that for now.

The metarate can be varied, and in the plans below I will compare different options for the metarate.

I will compare six different tax plans:

  1. Our existing tax plan, set under the Obama administration
  2. Trump’s proposed tax plan
  3. A flat rate of 30% with a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  4. A flat rate of 40% with a basic income of $15,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  5. A logtax with a metarate of 20%, all spending intact
  6. A logtax with a metarate of 25% and a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  7. A logtax with a metarate of 35% and a basic income of $15,000, cutting military spending by 50% and expanding Medicare to the entire population while eliminating Medicare payroll taxes

To do a proper comparison, I need estimates of the income distribution in the United States, in order to properly estimate the revenue from each type of tax. For that I used US Census data for most of the income data, supplementing with the World Top Incomes database for the very highest income brackets. The household data is broken up into brackets of $5,000 and only goes up to $250,000, so it’s a rough approximation to use the average household income for each bracket, but it’s all I’ve got.

The current brackets are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. These are actually marginal rates, not average rates, which makes the calculation a lot more complicated. I did it properly though; for example, when you start paying the marginal rate of 28%, your average rate is really only 20.4%.

Worst of all, I used static scoring—that is, I ignored the Laffer Effect by which increasing taxes changes incentives and can change pre-tax incomes. To really do this analysis properly, one should use dynamic scoring, taking these effects into account—but proper dynamic scoring is an enormous undertaking, and this is a blog post, not my dissertation.

Still, I was able to get pretty close to the true figures. The actual federal budget shows total revenue net of payroll taxes to be $2.397 trillion, whereas I estimated $2.326 trillion; the true deficit is $608 billion and I estimated $682 billion.

Under Trump’s tax plan, almost all rates are cut. He also plans to remove some deductions, but all reports I could find on the plan were vague as to which ones, and with data this coarse it’s very hard to get any good figures on deduction amounts anyway. I also want to give him credit where it’s due: It was a lot easier to calculate the tax rates under Trump’s plan (but still harder than under mine…). But in general what I found was the following:

Almost everyone pays less income tax under Trump’s plan, by generally about 4-5% of their income. The poor benefit less or are slightly harmed; the rich benefit a bit more.

For example, a household in poverty making $12,300 would pay $1,384 currently, but $1,478 under Trump’s plan, losing $94 or 0.8% of their income. An average household making $52,000 would pay $8,768 currently but only $6,238 under Trump’s plan, saving $2,530 or about 4.8% of their income. A household making $152,000 would pay $35,580 currently but only $28,235 under Trump’s plan, saving $7,345 or again about 4.8%. A top 1% household making $781,000 would pay $265,625 currently, but only $230,158 under Trump’s plan, saving $35,467 or about 4.5%. A top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $762,656 currently, but only $644,350 under Trump’s plan, saving $118,306 or 5.8% of their income. A top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $3,890,736 currently, but only $3,251,083 under Trump’s plan, saving $639,653 or 6.4% of their income.

Because taxes are cut across the board, Trump’s plan would raise less revenue. My static scoring will exaggerate this effect, but only moderately; my estimate says we would lose over $470 billion in annual revenue, while the true figure might be $300 billion. In any case, Trump will definitely increase the deficit substantially unless he finds a way to cut an awful lot of spending elsewhere—and his pet $54 billion increase to the military isn’t helping in that regard. My estimate of the new deficit under Trump’s plan is $1.155 trillion—definitely not the sort of deficit you should be running during a peacetime economic expansion.

Let’s see what we might have done instead.

If we value simplicity and ease of calculation, it’s hard to beat a flat tax plus basic income. With a flat tax of 30% and a basic income of $12,000 per household, the poor do much better off because of the basic income, while the rich do a little better because of the flat tax, and the middle class feels about the same because the two effects largely cancel. Calculating your tax liability now couldn’t be easier; multiply your income by 3, remove a zero—that’s what you owe in taxes. And how much do you get in basic income? The same as everyone else, $12,000.

Using the same comparison households: The poor household making $12,300 would now receive $8,305—increasing their income by $9,689 or 78.8% relative to the current system. The middle-class household making $52,000 would pay $3,596, saving $5,172 or 10% of their income. The upper-middle-class household making $152,000 would now pay $33,582, saving only $1998 or 1.3% of their income. The top 1% household making $782,000 would pay $234,461, saving $31,164 or 4.0%. The top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $611,000, saving $151,656 or 7.4%. Finally, the top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $2,980,757, saving $910,000 or 9.1%.

Thus, like Trump’s plan, the tax cut almost across the board results in less revenue. However, because of the basic income, we can now justify cutting a lot of spending on social welfare programs. I estimated we could reasonably save about $630 billion by cutting Medicaid and other social welfare programs, while still not making poor people worse off because of the basic income. The resulting estimated deficit comes in at $1.085 trillion, which is still too large—but less than what Trump is proposing.

If I raise the flat rate to 40%—just as easy to calculate—I can bring that deficit down, even if I raise the basic income to $15,000 to compensate. The poverty household now receives $10,073, and the other representative households pay $5,974; $45,776; $297,615; $799,666; and $3,959,343 respectively. This means that the poor are again much better off, the middle class are about the same, and the rich are now substantially worse off. But what’s our deficit now? $180 billion—that’s about 1% of GDP, the sort of thing you can maintain indefinitely with a strong currency.

Can we do better than this? I think we can, with my logtax.

I confess that the logtax is not quite as easy to calculate as the flat tax. It does require taking exponents, and you can’t do it in your head. But it’s actually still easier than the current system, because there are no brackets to keep track of, no discontinuous shifts in the marginal rate. It is continuously progressive for all incomes, and the same formula can be used for all incomes from zero to infinity.
The simplest plan just replaces the income tax with a logtax of 20%. The poor household now receives $1,254, just from the automatic calculation of the tax—no basic income was added. The middle-class household pays $9,041, slightly more than what they are currently paying. Above that, people start paying more for sure: $50,655; $406,076; $1,228,795; and $7,065,274 respectively.

This system is obviously more progressive, but does it raise sufficient revenue? Why, as a matter of fact it removes the deficit entirely. The model estimates that the budget would now be at surplus of $110 billion. This is probably too optimistic; under dynamic scoring the distortions are probably going to cut the revenue a little. But it would almost certainly reduce the deficit, and very likely eliminate it altogether—without any changes in spending.

The next logtax plan adds a basic income of $12,000. To cover this, I raised the metarate to 25%. Now the poor household is receiving $11,413, the middle-class household is paying a mere $1,115, and the other households are paying $50,144; $458,140; $1,384,475; and $7,819,932 respectively. That top 0.01% household isn’t going to be happy, as they are now paying 78% of their income where in our current system they would pay only 39%. But their after-tax income is still over $2 million.

How does the budget look now? As with the flat tax plan, we can save about $630 billion by cutting redundant social welfare programs. So we are once again looking at a surplus, this time of about $63 billion. Again, the dynamic scoring might show some deficit, but definitely not a large one.

Finally, what if I raise the basic income to $15,000 and raise the metarate to 35%? The poor household now receives $14,186, while the median household pays $2,383. The richer households of course foot the bill, paying $64,180; $551,031; $1,618,703; and $8,790,124 respectively. Oh no, the top 0.01% household will have to make do with only $1.2 million; how will they survive!?

This raises enough revenue that it allows me to do some even more exciting things. With a $15,000 basic income, I can eliminate social welfare programs for sure. But then I can also cut military spending, say in half—still leaving us the largest military in the world. I can move funds around to give Medicare to every single American, an additional cost of about twice what we currently pay for Medicare. Then Medicaid doesn’t just get cut; it can be eliminated entirely, folded into Medicare. Assuming that the net effect on total spending is zero, the resulting deficit is estimated at only $168 billion, well within the range of what can be sustained indefinitely.

And really, that’s only the start. Once you consider all the savings on healthcare spending—an average of $4000 per person per year, if switching to single-payer brings us down to the average of other highly-developed countries. This is more than what the majority of the population would be paying in taxes under this plan—meaning that once you include the healthcare benefits, the majority of Americans would net receive money from the government. Compared to our current system, everyone making under about $80,000 would be better off. That is what we could be doing right now—free healthcare for everyone, a balanced budget (or close enough), and the majority of Americans receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.

These results are summarized in the table below. (I also added several more rows of representative households—though still not all the brackets I used!) I’ve color-coded who would be paying less in tax in green and who would be more in tax in red under each plan, compared to our current system. This color-coding is overly generous to Trump’s plan and the 30% flat tax plan, because it doesn’t account for the increased government deficit (though I did color-code those as well, again relative to the current system). And yet, over 50% of households make less than $51,986, putting the poorest half of Americans in the green zone for every plan except Trump’s. For the last plan, I also color-coded those between $52,000 and $82,000 who would pay additional taxes, but less than they save on healthcare, thus net saving money in blue. Including those folks, we’re benefiting over 69% of Americans.

Household

pre-tax income

Current tax system Trump’s tax plan Flat 30% tax with $12k basic income Flat 40% tax with $15k basic income Logtax 20% Logtax 25% with $12k basic income Logtax 35% with $15k basic income, single-payer healthcare
$1,080 $108 $130 -$11,676 -$14,568 -$856 -$12,121 -$15,173
$12,317 $1,384 $1,478 -$8,305 -$10,073 -$1,254 -$11,413 -$14,186
$22,162 $2,861 $2,659 -$5,351 -$6,135 $450 -$9,224 -$11,213
$32,058 $4,345 $3,847 -$2,383 -$2,177 $2,887 -$6,256 -$7,258
$51,986 $8,768 $6,238 $3,596 $5,794 $9,041 $1,115 $2,383
$77,023 $15,027 $9,506 $11,107 $15,809 $18,206 $11,995 $16,350
$81,966 $16,263 $10,742 $12,590 $17,786 $20,148 $14,292 $17,786
$97,161 $20,242 $14,540 $17,148 $23,864 $26,334 $21,594 $28,516
$101,921 $21,575 $15,730 $18,576 $27,875 $30,571 $23,947 $31,482
$151,940 $35,580 $28,235 $33,582 $45,776 $50,655 $50,144 $64,180
$781,538 $265,625 $230,158 $222,461 $297,615 $406,076 $458,140 $551,031
$2,036,666 $762,656 $644,350 $599,000 $799,666 $1,228,795 $1,384,475 $1,618,703
$9,935,858 $3,890,736 $3,251,083 $2,968,757 $3,959,343 $7,065,274 $7,819,932 $8,790,124
Change in federal spending $0 $0 -$630 billion -$630 billion $0 -$630 billion $0
Estimated federal surplus -$682 billion -$1,155 billion -$822 billion -$180 billion $110 billion $63 billion -$168 billion

No, Scandinavian countries aren’t parasites. They’re just… better.

Oct 1, JDN 2457663

If you’ve been reading my blogs for awhile, you likely have noticed me occasionally drop the hashtag #ScandinaviaIsBetter; I am in fact quite enamored of the Scandinavian (or Nordic more generally) model of economic and social policy.

But this is not a consensus view (except perhaps within Scandinavia itself), and I haven’t actually gotten around to presenting a detailed argument for just what it is that makes these countries so great.

I was inspired to do this by discussion with a classmate of mine (who shall remain nameless) who emphatically disagreed; he actually seems to think that American economic policy is somewhere near optimal (and to be fair, it might actually be near optimal, in the broad space of all possible economic policies—we are not Maoist China, we are not Somalia, we are not a nuclear wasteland). He couldn’t disagree with the statistics on how wealthy and secure and happy Scandinavian countries are, so instead he came up with this: “They are parasites.”

What he seemed to mean by this is that somehow Scandinavian countries achieve their success by sapping wealth from other countries, perhaps the rest of Europe, perhaps the world more generally. On this view, it’s not that Norway and Denmark aren’t rich because they economic policy basically figured out; no, they are somehow draining those riches from elsewhere.

This could scarcely be further from the truth.

But first, consider a couple of countries that are parasites, at least partially: Luxembourg and Singapore.

Singapore has an enormous trade surplus: 5.5 billion SGD per month, which is $4 billion per month, so almost $50 billion per year. They also have a positive balance of payments of $61 billion per year. Singapore’s total GDP is about $310 billion, so these are not small amounts. What does this mean? It means that Singapore is taking in a lot more money than they are spending out. They are effectively acting as mercantilists, or if you like as a profit-seeking corporation.

Moreover, Singapore is totally dependent on trade: their exports are over $330 billion per year, and their imports are over $280 billion. You may recognize each of these figures as comparable to the entire GDP of the country. Yes, their total trade is 200% of GDP. They aren’t really so much a country as a gigantic trading company.

What about Luxembourg? Well, they have a trade deficit of 420 million Euros per month, which is about $560 million per year. Their imports total about $2 billion per year, and their exports about $1.5 billion. Since Luxembourg’s total GDP is $56 billion, these aren’t unreasonably huge figures (total trade is about 6% of GDP); so Luxembourg isn’t a parasite in the sense that Singapore is.

No, what makes Luxembourg a parasite is the fact that 36% of their GDP is due to finance. Compare the US, where 12% of our GDP is finance—and we are clearly overfinancialized. Over a third of Luxembourg’s income doesn’t involve actually… doing anything. They hold onto other people’s money and place bets with it. Even insofar as finance can be useful, it should be only very slightly profitable, and definitely not more than 10% of GDP. As Stiglitz and Krugman agree (and both are Nobel Laureate economists), banking should be boring.

Do either of these arguments apply to Scandinavia? Let’s look at trade first. Denmark’s imports total about 42 billion DKK per month, which is about $70 billion per year. Their exports total about $90 billion per year. Denmark’s total GDP is $330 billion, so these numbers are quite reasonable. What are their main sectors? Manufacturing, farming, and fuel production. Notably, not finance.

Similar arguments hold for Sweden and Norway. They may be small countries, but they have diversified economies and strong production of real economic goods. Norway is probably overly dependent on oil exports, but they are specifically trying to move away from that right now. Even as it is, only about $90 billion of their $150 billion exports are related to oil, and exports in general are only about 35% of GDP, so oil is about 20% of Norway’s GDP. Compare that to Saudi Arabia, of which has 90% of its exports related to oil, accounting for 45% of GDP. If oil were to suddenly disappear, Norway would lose 20% of their GDP, dropping their per-capita GDP… all the way to the same as the US. (Terrifying!) But Saudi Arabia would suffer a total economic collapse, and their per capita-GDP would fall from where it is now at about the same as the US to about the same as Greece.

And at least oil actually does things. Oil exporting countries aren’t parasites so much as they are drug dealers. The world is “rolling drunk on petroleum”, and until we manage to get sober we’re going to continue to need that sweet black crude. Better we buy it from Norway than Saudi Arabia.

So, what is it that makes Scandinavia so great? Why do they have the highest happiness ratings, the lowest poverty rates, the best education systems, the lowest unemployment rates, the best social mobility and the highest incomes? To be fair, in most of these not literally every top spot is held by a Scandinavian country; Canada does well, Germany does well, the UK does well, even the US does well. Unemployment rates in particular deserve further explanation, because a lot of very poor countries report surprisingly low unemployment rates, such as Cambodia and Laos.

It’s also important to recognize that even great countries can have serious flaws, and the remnants of the feudal system in Scandinavia—especially in Sweden—still contribute to substantial inequality of wealth and power.

But in general, I think if you assembled a general index of overall prosperity of a country (or simply used one that already exists like the Human Development Index), you would find that Scandinavian countries are disproportionately represented at the very highest rankings. This calls out for some sort of explanation.

Is it simply that they are so small? They are certainly quite small; Norway and Denmark each have fewer people than the core of New York City, and Sweden has slightly more people than the Chicago metropolitan area. Put them all together, add in Finland and Iceland (which aren’t quite Scandinavia), and all together you have about the population of the New York City Combined Statistical Area.

But some of the world’s smallest countries are also its poorest. Samoa and Kiribati each have populations comparable to the city of Ann Arbor and per-capita GDPs 1/10 that of the US. Eritrea is the same size as Norway, and 70 times poorer. Burundi is slightly larger than Sweden, and has a per-capita GDP PPP of only $3.14 per day.

There’s actually a good statistical reason to expect that the smallest countries should vary the most in their incomes; you’re averaging over a smaller sample so you get more variance in the estimate. But this doesn’t explain why Norway is rich and Eritrea is poor. Incomes aren’t assigned randomly. This might be a reason to try comparing Norway to specifically New York City or Los Angeles rather than to the United States as a whole (Norway still does better, in case you were wondering—especially compared to LA); but it’s not a reason to say that Norway’s wealth doesn’t really count.

Is it because they are ethnically homogeneous? Yes, relatively speaking; but perhaps not as much as you imagine. 14% of Sweden’s population is immigrants, of which 64% are from outside the EU. 10% of Denmark’s population is comprised of immigrants, of which 66% came from non-Western countries. Immigrants are 13% of Norway’s population, of which half are from non-Western countries.

That’s certainly more ethnically homogeneous than the United States; 13% of our population is immigrants, which may sound comparable, but almost all non-immigrants in Scandinavia are of indigenous Nordic descent, all “White” by the usual classification. Meanwhile the United States is 64% non-Hispanic White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 1% Native American or Pacific Islander.

Scandinavian countries are actually by some measures less homogeneous than the US in terms of religion, however; only 4% of Americans are not Christian (78.5%), atheist (16.1%), or Jewish (1.7%), and only 0.6% are Muslim. As much as In Sweden, on the other hand, 60% of the population is nominally Lutheran, but 80% is atheist, and 5% of the population is Muslim. So if you think of Christian/Muslim as the sharp divide (theologically this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to be the cultural norm in vogue), then Sweden has more religious conflict to worry about than the US does.

Moreover, there are some very ethnically homogeneous countries that are in horrible shape. North Korea is almost completely ethnically homogeneous, for example, as is Haiti. There does seem to be a correlation between higher ethnic diversity and lower economic prosperity, but Canada and the US are vastly more diverse than Japan and South Korea yet significantly richer. So clearly ethnicity is not the whole story here.

I do think ethnic homogeneity can partly explain why Scandinavian countries have the good policies they do; because humans are tribal, ethnic homogeneity engenders a sense of unity and cooperation, a notion that “we are all in this together”. That egalitarian attitude makes people more comfortable with some of the policies that make Scandinavia what it is, which I will get into at the end of this post.

What about culture? Is there something about Nordic ideas, those Viking traditions, that makes Scandinavia better? Miles Kimball has argued this; he says we need to import “hard work, healthy diets, social cohesion and high levels of trust—not Socialism”. And truth be told, it’s hard to refute this assertion, since it’s very difficult to isolate and control for cultural variables even though we know they are important.

But this difficulty in falsification is a reason to be cautious about such a hypothesis; it should be a last resort when all the more testable theories have been ruled out. I’m not saying culture doesn’t matter; it clearly does. But unless you can test it, “culture” becomes a theory that can explain just about anything—which means that it really explains nothing.

The “social cohesion and high levels of trust” part actually can be tested to some extent—and it is fairly well supported. High levels of trust are strongly correlated with economic prosperity. But we don’t really need to “import” that; the US is already near the top of the list in countries with the highest levels of trust.

I can’t really disagree with “good diet”, except to say that almost everywhere eats a better diet than the United States. The homeland of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola is frankly quite dystopian when it comes to rates of heart disease and diabetes. Given our horrible diet and ludicrously inefficient healthcare system, the only reason we live as long as we do is that we are an extremely rich country (so we can afford to pay the most for healthcare, for certain definitions of “afford”), and almost no one here smokes anymore. But good diet isn’t so much Scandinavian as it is… un-American.

But as for “hard work”, he’s got it backwards; the average number of work hours per week is 33 in Denmark and Norway, compared to 38 in the US. Among full-time workers in the US, the average number of hours per week is a whopping 47. Working hours in the US are much more intensive than anywhere in Europe, including Scandinavia. Though of course we are nowhere near the insane work addiction suffered by most East Asian countries; lately South Korea and Japan have been instituting massive reforms to try to get people to stop working themselves to death. And not surprisingly, work-related stress is a leading cause of death in the United States. If anything, we need to import some laziness, or at least a sense of work-life balance. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure that the only reason he said “hard work” is that it’s a cultural Applause Light in the US; being against hard work is like being against the American Flag or homemade apple pie. At this point, “we need more hard work” isn’t so much an assertion as it is a declaration of tribal membership.)

But none of these things adequately explains why poverty and inequality is so much lower in Scandinavia than it is in the United States, and there’s really a quite simple explanation.

Why is it that #ScandinaviaIsBetter? They’re not afraid to make rich people pay higher taxes so they can help poor people.

In the US, this idea of “redistribution of wealth” is anathema, even taboo; simply accusing a policy of being “redistributive” or “socialist” is for many Americans a knock-down argument against that policy. In Denmark, “socialist” is a meaningful descriptor; some policies are “socialist”, others “capitalist”, and these aren’t particularly weighted terms; it’s like saying here that a policy is “Keynesian” or “Monetarist”, or if that’s too obscure, saying that it’s “liberal” or “conservative”. People will definitely take sides, and it is a matter of political importance—but it’s inside the Overton Window. It’s not almost unthinkable as it is here.

If culture has an effect here, it likely comes from Scandinavia’s long traditions of egalitarianism. Going at least back to the Vikings, in theory at least (clearly not always in practice), people—or at least fellow Scandinavians—were considered equal participants in society, no one “better” or “higher” than anyone else. Even today, it is impolite in Denmark to express pride at your own accomplishments; there’s a sense that you are trying to present yourself as somehow more deserving than others. Honestly this attitude seems unhealthy to me, though perhaps preferable to the unrelenting narcissism of American society; but insofar as culture is making Scandinavia better, it’s almost certainly because this thoroughgoing sense of egalitarianism underlies all their economic policy. In the US, the rich are brilliant and the poor are lazy; in Denmark, the rich are fortunate and the poor are unlucky. (Which theory is more accurate? Donald Trump. I rest my case.)

To be clear, Scandinavia is not communist; and they are certainly not Stalinist. They don’t believe in total collectivization of industry, or complete government control over the economy. They don’t believe in complete, total equality, or even a hard cap on wealth: Stefan Persson is an 11-figure billionaire. Does he pay high taxes, living in Sweden? Yes he does, considerably higher than he’d pay in the US. He seems to be okay with that. Why, it’s almost like his marginal utility of wealth is now negligible.

Scandinavian countries also don’t try to micromanage your life in the way often associated with “socialism”–in fact I’d say they do it less than we do in the US. Here we have Republicans who want to require drug tests for food stamps even though that literally wastes money and helps no one; there they just provide a long list of government benefits for everyone free of charge. They just held a conference in Copenhagen to discuss the possibility of transitioning many of these benefits into a basic income; and basic income is the least intrusive means of redistributing wealth.

In fact, because Scandinavian countries tax differently, it’s not necessarily the case that people always pay higher taxes there. But they pay more transparent taxes, and taxes with sharper incidence. Denmark’s corporate tax rate is only 22% compared to 35% in the US; but their top personal income tax bracket is 59% while ours is only 39.6% (though it can rise over 50% with some state taxes). Denmark also has a land value tax and a VAT, both of which most economists have clamored for for generations. (The land value tax I totally agree with; the VAT I’m a little more ambivalent about.) Moreover, filing your taxes in Denmark is not a month-long stress marathon of gathering paperwork, filling out forms, and fearing that you’ll get something wrong and be audited as it is in the US; they literally just send you a bill. You can contest it, but most people don’t. You just pay it and you’re done.

Now, that does mean the government is keeping track of your income; and I might think that Americans would never tolerate such extreme surveillance… and then I remember that PRISM is a thing. Apparently we’re totally fine with the NSA reading our emails, but God forbid the IRS just fill out our 1040s for us (that they are going to read anyway). And there’s no surveillance involved in requiring retail stores to incorporate sales tax into listed price like they do in Europe instead of making us do math at the cash register like they do here. It’s almost like Americans are trying to make taxes as painful as possible.

Indeed, I think Scandanavian socialism is a good example of how high taxes are a sign of a free society, not an authoritarian one. Taxes are a minimal incursion on liberty. High taxes are how you fund a strong government and maintain extensive infrastructure and public services while still being fair and following the rule of law. The lowest tax rates in the world are in North Korea, which has ostensibly no taxes at all; the government just confiscates whatever they decide they want. Taxes in Venezuela are quite low, because the government just owns all the oil refineries (and also uses multiple currency exchange rates to arbitrage seigniorage). US taxes are low by First World standards, but not by world standards, because we combine a free society with a staunch opposition to excessive taxation. Most of the rest of the free world is fine with paying a lot more taxes than we do. In fact, even using Heritage Foundation data, there is a clear positive correlation between higher tax rates and higher economic freedom:
Graph: Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index and tax burden

What’s really strange, though, is that most Americans actually support higher taxes on the rich. They often have strange or even incoherent ideas about what constitutes “rich”; I have extended family members who have said they think $100,000 is an unreasonable amount of money for someone to make, yet somehow are totally okay with Donald Trump making $300,000,000. The chant “we are the 99%” has always been off by a couple orders of magnitude; the plutocrat rentier class is the top 0.01%, not the top 1%. The top 1% consists mainly of doctors and lawyers and engineers; the top 0.01%, to a man—and they are nearly all men, in fact White men—either own corporations or work in finance. But even adjusting for all this, it seems like at least a bare majority of Americans are all right with “redistributive” “socialist” policies—as long as you don’t call them that.

So I suppose that’s sort of what I’m trying to do; don’t think of it as “socialism”. Think of it as #ScandinaviaIsBetter.

How not to do financial transaction tax

JDN 2457520

I strongly support the implementation of a financial transaction tax; like a basic income, it’s one of those economic policy ideas that are so brilliantly simple it’s honestly a little hard to believe how incredibly effective they are at making the world a better place. You mean we might be able to end stock market crashes just by implementing this little tax that most people will never even notice, and it will raise enough revenue to pay for food stamps? Yes, a financial transaction tax is that good.

So, keep that in mind when I say this:

TruthOut’s proposal for a financial transaction tax is somewhere between completely economically illiterate and outright insane.

They propose a 10% transaction tax on stocks and a 1% transaction tax on notional value of derivatives, then offer a “compromise” of 5% on stocks and 0.5% on derivatives. They make a bunch of revenue projections based on these that clearly amount to nothing but multiplying the current amount of transactions by the tax rate, which is so completely wrong we now officially have a left-wing counterpart to trickle-down voodoo economics.

Their argument is basically like this (I’m paraphrasing): “If we have to pay 5% sales tax on groceries, why shouldn’t you have to pay 5% on stocks?”

But that’s not how any of this works.

Demand for most groceries is very inelastic, especially in the aggregate. While you might change which groceries you’ll buy depending on their respective prices, and you may buy in bulk or wait for sales, over a reasonably long period (say a year) across a large population (say all of Michigan or all of the US), total amount of spending on groceries is extremely stable. People only need a certain amount of food, and they generally buy that amount and then stop.

So, if you implement a 5% sales tax that applies to groceries (actually sales tax in most states doesn’t apply to most groceries, but honestly it probably should—offset the regressiveness by providing more social services), people would just… spend about 5% more on groceries. Probably a bit less than that, actually, since suppliers would absorb some of the tax; but demand is much less elastic for groceries than supply, so buyers would bear most of the incidence of the tax. (It does not matter how the tax is collected; see my tax incidence series for further explanation of why.)

Other goods like clothing and electronics are a bit more elastic, so you’d get some deadweight loss from the sales tax; but at a typical 5% to 10% in the US this is pretty minimal, and even the hefty 20% or 30% VATs in some European countries only have a moderate effect. (Denmark’s 180% sales tax on cars seems a bit excessive to me, but it is Pigovian to disincentivize driving, so it also has very little deadweight loss.)

But what would happen if you implemented a 5% transaction tax on stocks? The entire stock market would immediately collapse.

A typical return on stocks is between 5% and 15% per year. As a rule of thumb, let’s say about 10%.

If you pay 5% sales tax and trade once per year, tax just cut your return in half.

If you pay 5% sales tax and trade twice per year, tax destroyed your return completely.

Even if you only trade once every five years, a 5% sales tax means that instead of your stocks being worth 61% more after those 5 years they are only worth 53% more. Your annual return has been reduced from 10% to 8.9%.

But in fact there are many perfectly legitimate reasons to trade as often as monthly, and a 5% tax would make monthly trading completely unviable.

Even if you could somehow stop everyone from pulling out all their money just before the tax takes effect, you would still completely dry up the stock market as a source of funding for all but the most long-term projects. Corporations would either need to finance their entire operations out of cash or bonds, or collapse and trigger a global depression.

Derivatives are even more extreme. The notional value of derivatives is often ludicrously huge; we currently have over a quadrillion dollars in notional value of outstanding derivatives. Assume that say 10% of those are traded every year, and we’re talking $100 trillion in notional value of transactions. At 0.5% you’re trying to take in a tax of $500 billion. That sounds fantastic—so much money!—but in fact what you should be thinking about is that’s a really strong avoidance incentive. You don’t think banks will find a way to restructure their trading practices—or stop trading altogether—to avoid this tax?

Honestly, maybe a total end to derivatives trading would be tolerable. I certainly think we need to dramatically reduce the amount of derivatives trading, and much of what is being traded—credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, synthetic collateralized debt obligations, etc.—really should not exist and serves no real function except to obscure fraud and speculation. (Credit default swaps are basically insurance you can buy on other people’s companies. There’s a reason you’re not allowed to buy insurance on other people’s stuff!) Interest rate swaps aren’t terrible (when they’re not being used to perpetrate the largest white-collar crime in history), but they also aren’t necessary. You might be able to convince me that commodity futures and stock options are genuinely useful, though even these are clearly overrated. (Fun fact: Futures markets have been causing financial crises since at least Classical Rome.) Exchange-traded funds are technically derivatives, and they’re just fine (actually ETFs are very low-risk, because they are inherently diversified—which is why you should probably be buying them); but actually their returns are more like stocks, so the 0.5% might not be insanely high in that case.

But stocks? We kind of need those. Equity financing has been the foundation of capitalism since the very beginning. Maybe we could conceivably go to a fully debt-financed system, but it would be a radical overhaul of our entire financial system and is certainly not something to be done lightly.

Indeed, TruthOut even seems to think we could apply the same sales tax rate to bonds, which means that debt financing would also collapse, and now we’re definitely talking about global depression. How exactly is anyone supposed to finance new investments, if they can’t sell stock or bonds? And a 5% tax on the face value of stock or bonds, for all practical purposes, is saying that you can’t sell stock or bonds. It would make no one want to buy them.

Wealthy investors buying of stocks and bonds is essentially no different than average folks buying food, clothing or other real “goods and services.”

Yes it is. It is fundamentally different.

People buy goods to use them. People buy stocks to make money selling them.

This seems perfectly obvious, but it is a vital distinction that seems to be lost on TruthOut.

When you buy an apple or a shoe or a phone or a car, you care how much it costs relative to how useful it is to you; if we make it a bit more expensive, that will make you a bit less likely to buy it—but probably not even one-to-one so that a 5% tax would reduce purchases by 5%; it would probably be more like a 2% reduction. Demand for goods is inelastic. Taxing them will raise a lot of revenue and not reduce the quantity purchased very much.

But when you buy a stock or a bond or an interest rate swap, you care how much it costs relative to what you will be able to sell it for—you care about not its utility but its return. So a 5% tax will reduce the amount of buying and selling by substantially more than 5%—it could well be 50% or even 100%. Demand for financial assets is elastic. Taxing them will not raise much revenue but will substantially reduce the quantity purchased.

Now, for some financial assets, we want to reduce the quantity purchased—the derivatives market is clearly too big, and high-frequency trading that trades thousands of times per second can do nothing but destabilize the financial system. Joseph Stiglitz supports a small financial transaction tax precisely because it would substantially reduce high-frequency trading, and he’s a Nobel Laureate as you may recall. Naturally, he was excluded from the SEC hearings on the subject, because reasons. But the figures Stiglitz is talking about (and I agree with) are on the order of 0.1% for stocks and 0.01% for derivatives—50 times smaller than what TruthOut is advocating.

At the end, they offer another “compromise”:

Okay, half it again, to a 2.5 percent tax on stocks and bonds and a 0.25 percent on derivative trades. That certainly won’t discourage stock and bond trading by the rich (not that that is an all bad idea either).

Yes it will. By a lot. That’s the whole point.

A financial transaction tax is a great idea whose time has come; let’s not ruin its reputation by setting it at a preposterous value. Just as a $15 minimum wage is probably a good idea but a $250 minimum wage is definitely a terrible idea, a 0.1% financial transaction tax could be very beneficial but a 5% financial transaction tax would clearly be disastrous.

Whose tax plan makes the most sense?

JDN 2457496

The election for the President of the United States has now come down to four candidates; the most likely winner is Hillary Clinton, but despite claims to the contrary Bernie Sanders could still win the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side Donald Trump holds a small lead over Ted Cruz, and then there’s a small chance that Kasich could win or a new candidate could emerge if neither can win a majority and they go to a brokered convention (I’ve heard Romney and Ryan suggested, and either of them would be far better).

There are a lot of differences between the various candidates, and while it feels partisan to say so I really think it’s pretty obvious that Clinton and Sanders are superior candidates to Trump and Cruz. Trump is a plutocratic crypto-fascist blowhard with no actual qualifications, and Cruz seems to extrude sleaze from his every pore—such that basically nobody who knows him well actually likes him.

In general I’ve preferred Sanders, though when he started talking about trade policy the other day it actually got me pretty worried that he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of free trade. So while I think a lot of Clinton’s plans are kind of lukewarm, I wouldn’t mind if she won, if only because her trade policy is clearly better.

But today I’m going to compare all four candidates in a somewhat wonkier way: Let’s talk about taxes.

Specifically, federal income tax. There are a lot of other types of taxes of course, but federal income tax is the chief source of revenue for the US federal government, as well as the chief mechanism by which the United States engages in redistribution of wealth. I’ll also briefly discuss payroll taxes, which are the second-largest source of federal revenue.
So, I’ve looked up the income tax plans of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz respectively, and they are summarized below. The first column gives the minimum income threshold for that marginal tax rate (since they vary slightly I’ll be rounding to the nearest thousand). For comparison I’ve included the current income tax system as well. I’m using the rates for an individual filing singly with no deductions for simplicity.

Current system Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Ted Cruz
0 10% 10% 10% 0% 0%
9,000 15% 15% 15% 0% 0%
25,000 15% 15% 15% 10% 0%
36,000 25% 25% 25% 10% 10%
37,000 25% 25% 25% 10% 10%
50,000 25% 25% 25% 20% 10%
91,000 28% 28% 28% 20% 10%
150,000 28% 28% 28% 25% 10%
190,000 33% 33% 33% 25% 10%
250,000 33% 33% 37% 25% 10%
412,000 35% 35% 37% 25% 10%
413,000 39.6% 35% 37% 25% 10%
415,000 39.6% 39.6% 37% 25% 10%
500,000 39.6% 39.6% 43% 25% 10%
2,000,000 39.6% 39.6% 48% 25% 10%
5,000,000 39.6% 43.6% 48% 25% 10%
10,000,000 39.6% 43.6% 52% 25% 10%

As you can see, Hillary Clinton’s plan is basically our current system, with some minor adjustments and a slight increase in progressivity.In addition to these slight changes in the income tax code, she also proposes to close some loopholes in corporate taxes, but she basically doesn’t change the payroll tax system at all. Her plan would not change a whole lot, but we know it would work, because our current tax system does work.

Despite calling himself a social democrat and being accused of being a far more extreme sort of socialist, Bernie Sanders offers a tax plan that isn’t very radical either; he makes our income tax system a bit more progressive, especially at very high incomes; but it’s nothing out of the ordinary by historical standards. Sanders’ top rate of 52% is about what Reagan set in his first tax cut plan in 1982, and substantially lower than the about 90% top rates we had from 1942 to 1964 and the about 70% top rates we had from 1965 to 1981. Sanders would also lift the income cap on payroll taxes (which it makes no sense not to do—why would we want payroll taxes to be regressive?) and eliminate the payroll tax deduction for fringe benefits (which is something a lot of economists have been clamoring for).

No, it’s the Republicans who have really radical tax plans. Donald Trump’s plan involves a substantial cut across the board, to rates close to the lowest they’ve ever been in US history, which was during the Roaring Twenties—the top tax rate was 25% from 1925 to 1931. Trump also proposes to cut the corporate tax in half (which I actually like), and eliminate the payroll tax completely—which would only make sense if you absorbed it into income taxes, which he does not.

Ted Cruz’s plan is even more extreme, removing essentially all progressivity from the US tax code and going to a completely flat tax at the nonsensically low rate of 10%. We haven’t had a rate that low since 1915—so these would be literally the lowest income tax rates we’ve had in a century. Ted Cruz also wants to cut the corporate tax rate in half and eliminate payroll taxes, which is even crazier in his case because of how much he would be cutting income tax rates.

To see why this is so bonkers, take a look at federal spending as a portion of GDP over the last century. We spent only about 10% of GDP in 1915; We currently take in $3.25 trillion per year, 17.4% of GDP, and spend $3.70 trillion per year, 19.8% of GDP. So Ted Cruz’s plan was designed for an era in which the federal government spent about half what it does right now. I don’t even see how we could cut spending that far that fast; it would require essentially eliminating Social Security and Medicare, or else huge cuts in just about everything else. Either that, or we’d have to run the largest budget deficit we have since WW2, and not just for the war spending but indefinitely.

Donald Trump’s plan is not quite as ridiculous, but fact-checkers have skewered him for claiming it will be revenue-neutral. No, it would cut revenue by about $1 trillion per year, which would mean either large deficits (and concomitant risk of inflation and interest rate spikes—this kind of deficit would have been good in 2009, but it’s not so great indefinitely) or very large reductions in spending.

To be fair, both Republicans do claim they intend to cut a lot of spending. But they never quite get around to explaining what spending they’ll be cutting. Are you gutting Social Security? Ending Medicare? Cutting the military in half? These are the kinds of things you’d need to do in order to save this much money.

It’s kind of a shame that Cruz set the rate so low, because if he’d proposed a flat tax of say 25% or 30% that might actually make sense. Applied to consumption instead of income, this would be the Fair Tax, which is 23% if calculated like an income tax or 30% if calculated like a sales tax—either way it’s 26 log points. The Fair Tax could actually provide sufficient revenue to support most existing federal spending,

I still oppose it because I want taxes to be progressive (for reasons I’ve explained previously), and the Fair Tax, by applying only to consumption it would be very regressive (poor people often spend more than 100% of their incomes on consumption—financing it on debt—while rich people generally spend about 50%, and the very rich spend even less). It would exacerbate inequality quite dramatically, especially in capital income, which would be completely untaxed. Even a flat income tax like Cruz’s would still hit the poor harder than the rich in real terms.

But I really do like the idea of a very simple, straightforward tax code that has very few deductions so that everyone knows how much they are going to pay and doesn’t have to deal with hours of paperwork to do it. If this lack of deductions is enshrined in law, it would also remove most of the incentives to lobby for loopholes and tax expenditures, making our tax system much fairer and more efficient.

No doubt about it, flat taxes absolutely are hands-down the easiest to compute. Most people would probably have trouble figuring out a formula like r = I^{-p}, though computers have no such problem (my logarithmic tax plan is easier on computers than the present system); but even fifth-graders can multiply something by 25%. There is something very appealing about everyone knowing at all times that they pay in taxes one-fourth of what they get in income. Adding a simple standard deduction for low incomes makes it slightly more complicated, but also makes it a little bit progressive and is totally worth the tradeoff.

His notion of “eliminating the IRS” is ridiculous (we still need the IRS to audit people to make sure they are honest about their incomes!), and I think the downsides of having no power to redistribute wealth via taxes outweigh the benefits of a flat tax, but the benefits are very real. The biggest problem is that Cruz chose a rate that simply makes no sense; there’s no way to make the numbers work out if the rate is only 10%, especially since you’re excluding half the population from being taxed at all.

Hopefully you see how this supports my contention that Clinton and Sanders are the serious candidates while Trump and Cruz are awful; Clinton wants to keep our current tax system, and Sanders wants to make it a bit more progressive, while Trump and Cruz prize cutting taxes and making taxes simple so highly that they forgot to make sure the numbers actually make any sense—or worse, didn’t care.

Is Equal Unfair?

JDN 2457492

Much as you are officially a professional when people start paying you for what you do, I think you are officially a book reviewer when people start sending you books for free asking you to review them for publicity. This has now happened to me, with the book Equal Is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook. This post is longer than usual, but in order to be fair to the book’s virtues as well as its flaws, I felt a need to explain quite thoroughly.

It’s a very frustrating book, because at times I find myself agreeing quite strongly with the first part of a paragraph, and then reaching the end of that same paragraph and wanting to press my forehead firmly into the desk in front of me. It makes some really good points, and for the most part uses economic statistics reasonably accurately—but then it rides gleefully down a slippery slope fallacy like a waterslide. But I guess that’s what I should have expected; it’s by leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, and my experience with reading Ayn Rand is similar to that of Randall Monroe (I’m mainly referring to the alt-text, which uses slightly foul language).

As I kept being jostled between “That’s a very good point.”, “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.”, and “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” I realized that there are actually three books here, interleaved:

1. A decent economics text on the downsides of taxation and regulation and the great success of technology and capitalism at raising the standard of living in the United States, which could have been written by just about any mainstream centrist neoclassical economist—I’d say it reads most like John Taylor or Ken Galbraith. My reactions to this book were things like “That’s a very good point.”, and “Sure, but any economist would agree with that.”

2. An interesting philosophical treatise on the meanings of “equality” and “opportunity” and their application to normative economic policy, as well as about the limitations of statistical data in making political and ethical judgments. It could have been written by Robert Nozick (actually I think much of it was based on Robert Nozick). Some of the arguments are convincing, others are not, and many of the conclusions are taken too far; but it’s well within the space of reasonable philosophical arguments. My reactions to this book were things like “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.” and “Your argument is valid, but I think I reject the second premise.”

3. A delusional rant of the sort that could only be penned by a True Believer in the One True Gospel of Ayn Rand, about how poor people are lazy moochers, billionaires are world-changing geniuses whose superior talent and great generosity we should all bow down before, and anyone who would dare suggest that perhaps Steve Jobs got lucky or owes something to the rest of society is an authoritarian Communist who hates all achievement and wants to destroy the American Dream. It was this book that gave me reactions like “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” and “You clearly have no idea what poverty is like, do you?” and “[expletive] you, you narcissistic ingrate!”

Given that the two co-authors are Executive Director and a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, I suppose I should really be pleasantly surprised that books 1 and 2 exist, rather than disappointed by book 3.

As evidence of each of the three books interleaved, I offer the following quotations:

Book 1:

“All else being equal, taxes discourage production and prosperity.” (p. 30)

No reasonable economist would disagree. The key is all else being equal—it rarely is.

“For most of human history, our most pressing problem was getting enough food. Now food is abundant and affordable.” (p.84)

Correct! And worth pointing out, especially to anyone who thinks that economic progress is an illusion or we should go back to pre-industrial farming practices—and such people do exist.

“Wealth creation is first and foremost knowledge creation. And this is why you can add to the list of people who have created the modern world, great thinkers: people such as Euclid, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a relative handful of others.” (p.90, emph. in orig.)

Absolutely right, though as I’ll get to below there’s something rather notable about that list.

“To be sure, there is competition in an economy, but it’s not a zero-sum game in which some have to lose so that others can win—not in the big picture.” (p. 97)

Yes! Precisely! I wish I could explain to more people—on both the Left and the Right, by the way—that economics is nonzero-sum, and that in the long run competitive markets improve the standard of living of society as a whole, not just the people who win that competition.

Book 2:

“Even opportunities that may come to us without effort on our part—affluent parents, valuable personal connections, a good education—require enormous effort to capitalize on.” (p. 66)

This is sometimes true, but clearly doesn’t apply to things like the Waltons’ inherited billions, for which all they had to do was be born in the right family and not waste their money too extravagantly.

“But life is not a game, and achieving equality of initial chances means forcing people to play by different rules.” (p. 79)

This is an interesting point, and one that I think we should acknowledge; we must treat those born rich differently from those born poor, because their unequal starting positions mean that treating them equally from this point forward would lead to a wildly unfair outcome. If my grandfather stole your grandfather’s wealth and passed it on to me, the fair thing to do is not to treat you and I equally from this point forward—it’s to force me to return what was stolen, insofar as that is possible. And even if we suppose that my grandfather earned far vaster wealth than yours, I think a more limited redistribution remains justified simply to put you and I on a level playing field and ensure fair competition and economic efficiency.

“The key error in this argument is that it totally mischaracterizes what it means to earn something. For the egalitarians, the results of our actions don’t merely have to be under our control, but entirely of our own making. […] But there is nothing like that in reality, and so what the egalitarians are ultimately doing is wiping out the very possibility of earning something.” (p. 193)

The way they use “egalitarian” as an insult is a bit grating, but there clearly are some actual egalitarian philosophers whose views are this extreme, such as G.A. Cohen, James Kwak and Peter Singer. I strongly agree that we need to make a principled distinction between gains that are earned and gains that are unearned, such that both sets are nonempty. Yet while Cohen would seem to make “earned” an empty set, Watkins and Brook very nearly make “unearned” empty—you get what you get, and you deserve it. The only exceptions they seem willing to make are outright theft and, what they consider equivalent, taxation. They have no concept of exploitation, excessive market power, or arbitrage—and while they claim they oppose fraud, they seem to think that only government is capable of it.

Book 3:

“What about government handouts (usually referred to as ‘transfer payments’)?” (p. 23)

Because Social Security is totally just a handout—it’s not like you pay into it your whole life or anything.

“No one cares whether the person who fixes his car or performs his brain surgery or applies for a job at his company is male or female, Indian or Pakistani—he wants to know whether they are competent.” (p.61)

Yes they do. We have direct experimental evidence of this.

“The notion that ‘spending drives the economy’ and that rich people spend less than others isn’t a view seriously entertained by economists,[…]” (p. 110)

The New Synthesis is Keynesian! This is what Milton Friedman was talking about when he said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

“Because mobility statistics don’t distinguish between those who don’t rise and those who can’t, they are useless when it comes to assessing how healthy mobility is.” (p. 119)

So, if Black people have much lower odds of achieving high incomes even controlling for education, we can’t assume that they are disadvantaged or discriminated against; maybe Black people are just lazy or stupid? Is that what you’re saying here? (I think it might be.)

“Payroll taxes alone amount to 15.3 percent of your income; money that is taken from you and handed out to the elderly. This means that you have to spend more than a month and a half each year working without pay in order to fund other people’s retirement and medical care.” (p. 127)

That is not even close to how taxes work. Taxes are not “taken” from money you’d otherwise get—taxation changes prices and the monetary system depends upon taxation.

“People are poor, in the end, because they have not created enough wealth to make themselves prosperous.” (p. 144)

This sentence was so awful that when I showed it to my boyfriend, he assumed it must be out of context. When I showed him the context, he started swearing the most I’ve heard him swear in a long time, because the context was even worse than it sounds. Yes, this book is literally arguing that the reason people are poor is that they’re just too lazy and stupid to work their way out of poverty.

“No society has fully implemented the egalitarian doctrine, but one came as close as any society can come: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.” (p. 207)

Because obviously the problem with the Khmer Rouge was their capital gains taxes. They were just too darn fair, and if they’d been more selfish they would never have committed genocide. (The authors literally appear to believe this.)

 

So there are my extensive quotations, to show that this really is what the book is saying. Now, a little more summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One good thing is that the authors really do seem to understand fairly well the arguments of their opponents. They quote their opponents extensively, and only a few times did it feel meaningfully out of context. Their use of economic statistics is also fairly good, though occasionally they present misleading numbers or compare two obviously incomparable measures.

One of the core points in Equal is Unfair is quite weak: They argue against the “shared-pie assumption”, which is that we create wealth as a society, and thus the rest of society is owed some portion of the fruits of our efforts. They maintain that this is fundamentally authoritarian and immoral; essentially they believe a totalizing false dichotomy between either absolute laissez-faire or Stalinist Communism.

But the “shared-pie assumption” is not false; we do create wealth as a society. Human cognition is fundamentally social cognition; they said themselves that we depend upon the discoveries of people like Newton and Einstein for our way of life. But it should be obvious we can never pay Einstein back; so instead we must pay forward, to help some child born in the ghetto to rise to become the next Einstein. I agree that we must build a society where opportunity is maximized—and that means, necessarily, redistributing wealth from its current state of absurd and immoral inequality.

I do however agree with another core point, which is that most discussions of inequality rely upon a tacit assumption which is false: They call it the “fixed-pie assumption”.

When you talk about the share of income going to different groups in a population, you have to be careful about the fact that there is not a fixed amount of wealth in a society to be distributed—not a “fixed pie” that we are cutting up and giving around. If it were really true that the rising income share of the top 1% were necessary to maximize the absolute benefits of the bottom 99%, we probably should tolerate that, because the alternative means harming everyone. (In arguing this they quote John Rawls several times with disapprobation, which is baffling because that is exactly what Rawls says.)

Even if that’s true, there is still a case to be made against inequality, because too much wealth in the hands of a few people will give them more power—and unequal power can be dangerous even if wealth is earned, exchanges are uncoerced, and the distribution is optimally efficient. (Watkins and Brook dismiss this contention out of hand, essentially defining beneficent exploitation out of existence.)

Of course, in the real world, there’s no reason to think that the ballooning income share of the top 0.01% in the US is actually associated with improved standard of living for everyone else.

I’ve shown these graphs before, but they bear repeating:

Income shares for the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% and 0.01% have risen dramatically in the last 30 years.

top_income_shares_adjusted

But real median income has only slightly increased during the same period.

US_median_household_income

Thus, mean income has risen much faster than median income.

median_mean

While theoretically it could be that the nature of our productivity technology has shifted in such a way that it suddenly became necessary to heap more and more wealth on the top 1% in order to continue increasing national output, there is actually very little evidence of this. On the contrary, as Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate, you may recall) has documented, the leading cause of our rising inequality appears to be a dramatic increase in rent-seeking, which is to say corruption, exploitation, and monopoly power. (This probably has something to do with why I found in my master’s thesis that rising top income shares correlate quite strongly with rising levels of corruption.)

Now to be fair, the authors of Equal is Unfair do say that they are opposed to rent-seeking, and would like to see it removed. But they have a very odd concept of what rent-seeking entails, and it basically seems to amount to saying that whatever the government does is rent-seeking, whatever corporations do is fair free-market competition. On page 38 they warn us not to assume that government is good and corporations are bad—but actually it’s much more that they assume that government is bad and corporations are good. (The mainstream opinion appears to be actually that both are bad, and we should replace them both with… er… something.)

They do make some other good points I wish more leftists would appreciate, such as the point that while colonialism and imperialism can damage countries that suffer them and make them poorer, they generally do not benefit the countries that commit them and make them richer. The notion that Europe is rich because of imperialism is simply wrong; Europe is rich because of education, technology, and good governance. Indeed, the greatest surge in Europe’s economic growth occurred as the period of imperialism was winding down—when Europeans realized that they would be better off trying to actually invent and produce things rather than stealing them from others.

Likewise, they rightfully demolish notions of primitivism and anti-globalization that I often see bouncing around from folks like Naomi Klein. But these are book 1 messages; any economist would agree that primitivism is a terrible idea, and very few are opposed to globalization per se.

The end of Equal is Unfair gives a five-part plan for unleashing opportunity in America:

1. Abolish all forms of corporate welfare so that no business can gain unfair advantage.

2. Abolish government barriers to work so that every individual can enjoy the dignity of earned success.

3. Phase out the welfare state so that America can once again become the land of self-reliance.

4. Unleash the power of innovation in education by ending the government monopoly on schooling.

5. Liberate innovators from the regulatory shackles that are strangling them.

Number 1 is hard to disagree with, except that they include literally everything the government does that benefits a corporation as corporate welfare, including things like subsidies for solar power that the world desperately needs (or millions of people will die).

Number 2 sounds really great until you realize that they are including all labor standards, environmental standards and safety regulations as “barriers to work”; because it’s such a barrier for children to not be able to work in a factory where your arm can get cut off, and such a barrier that we’ve eliminated lead from gasoline emissions and thereby cut crime in half.

Number 3 could mean a lot of things; if it means replacing the existing system with a basic income I’m all for it. But in fact it seems to mean removing all social insurance whatsoever. Indeed, Watkins and Brook do not appear to believe in social insurance at all. The whole concept of “less fortunate”, “there but for the grace of God go I” seems to elude them. They have no sense that being fortunate in their own lives gives them some duty to help others who were not; they feel no pang of moral obligation whatsoever to help anyone else who needs help. Indeed, they literally mock the idea that human beings are “all in this together”.

They also don’t even seem to believe in public goods, or somehow imagine that rational self-interest could lead people to pay for public goods without any enforcement whatsoever despite the overwhelming incentives to free-ride. (What if you allow people to freely enter a contract that provides such enforcement mechanisms? Oh, you mean like social democracy?)

Regarding number 4, I’d first like to point out that private schools exist. Moreover, so do charter schools in most states, and in states without charter schools there are usually vouchers parents can use to offset the cost of private schools. So while the government has a monopoly in the market share sense—the vast majority of education in the US is public—it does not actually appear to be enforcing a monopoly in the anti-competitive sense—you can go to private school, it’s just too expensive or not as good. Why, it’s almost as if education is a public good or a natural monopoly.

Number 5 also sounds all right, until you see that they actually seem most opposed to antitrust laws of all things. Why would antitrust laws be the ones that bother you? They are designed to increase competition and lower barriers, and largely succeed in doing so (when they are actually enforced, which is rare of late). If you really want to end barriers to innovation and government-granted monopolies, why is it not patents that draw your ire?

They also seem to have trouble with the difference between handicapping and redistribution—they seem to think that the only way to make outcomes more equal is to bring the top down and leave the bottom where it is, and they often use ridiculous examples like “Should we ban reading to your children, because some people don’t?” But of course no serious egalitarian would suggest such a thing. Education isn’t fungible, so it can’t be redistributed. You can take it away (and sometimes you can add it, e.g. public education, which Watkins and Brooks adamantly oppose); but you can’t simply transfer it from one person to another. Money on the other hand, is by definition fungible—that’s kind of what makes it money, really. So when we take a dollar from a rich person and give it to a poor person, the poor person now has an extra dollar. We’ve not simply lowered; we’ve also raised. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as redistribution can introduce inefficiencies. So realistically maybe we take $1.00 and give $0.90; that’s still worth doing in a lot of cases.)

If attributes like intelligence were fungible, I think we’d have a very serious moral question on our hands! It is not obvious to me that the world is better off with its current range of intelligence, compared to a world where geniuses had their excess IQ somehow sucked out and transferred to mentally disabled people. Or if you think that the marginal utility of intelligence is increasing, then maybe we should redistribute IQ upward—take it from some mentally disabled children who aren’t really using it for much and add it onto some geniuses to make them super-geniuses. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; you can’t do that. But whereas Watkins and Brook seem to think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t even if we could, I don’t find that obvious at all. You didn’t earn your IQ (for the most part); you don’t seem to deserve it in any deep sense; so why should you get to keep it, if the world would be much better off if you didn’t? Why should other people barely be able to feed themselves so I can be good at calculus? At best, maybe I’m free to keep it—but given the stakes, I’m not even sure that would be justifiable. Peter Singer is right about one thing: You’re not free to let a child drown in a lake just to keep your suit from getting wet.

Ultimately, if you really want to understand what’s going on with Equal is Unfair, consider the following sentence, which I find deeply revealing as to the true objectives of these Objectivists:

“Today, meanwhile, although we have far more liberty than our feudal ancestors, there are countless ways in which the government restricts our freedom to produce and trade including minimum wage laws, rent control, occupational licensing laws, tariffs, union shop laws, antitrust laws, government monopolies such as those granted to the post office and education system, subsidies for industries such as agriculture or wind and solar power, eminent domain laws, wealth redistribution via the welfare state, and the progressive income tax.” (p. 114)

Some of these are things no serious economist would disagree with: We should stop subsidizing agriculture and tariffs should be reduced or removed. Many occupational licenses are clearly unnecessary (though this has a very small impact on inequality in real terms—licensing may stop you from becoming a barber, but it’s not what stops you from becoming a CEO). Others are legitimately controversial: Economists are currently quite divided over whether minimum wage is beneficial or harmful (I lean toward beneficial, but I’d prefer a better solution), as well as how to properly regulate unions so that they give workers much-needed bargaining power without giving unions too much power. But a couple of these are totally backward, exactly contrary to what any mainstream economist would say: Antitrust laws need to be enforced more, not eliminated (don’t take it from me; take it from that well-known Marxist rag The Economist). Subsidies for wind and solar power make the economy more efficient, not less—and suspiciously Watkins and Brook omitted the competing subsidies that actually are harmful, namely those to coal and oil.

Moreover, I think it’s very revealing that they included the word progressive when talking about taxation. In what sense does making a tax progressive undermine our freedom? None, so far as I can tell. The presence of a tax undermines freedom—your freedom to spend that money some other way. Making the tax higher undermines freedom—it’s more money you lose control over. But making the tax progressive increases freedom for some and decreases it for others—and since rich people have lower marginal utility of wealth and are generally more free in substantive terms in general, it really makes the most sense that, holding revenue constant, making a tax progressive generally makes your people more free.

But there’s one thing that making taxes progressive does do: It benefits poor people and hurts rich people. And thus the true agenda of Equal is Unfair becomes clear: They aren’t actually interested in maximizing freedom—if they were, they wouldn’t be complaining about occupational licensing and progressive taxation, they’d be outraged by forced labor, mass incarceration, indefinite detention, and the very real loss of substantive freedom that comes from being born into poverty. They wouldn’t want less redistribution, they’d want more efficient and transparent redistribution—a shift from the current hodgepodge welfare state to a basic income system. They would be less concerned about the “freedom” to pollute the air and water with impunity, and more concerned about the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

No, what they really believe is rich people are better. They believe that billionaires attained their status not by luck or circumstance, not by corruption or ruthlessness, but by the sheer force of their genius. (This is essentially the entire subject of chapter 6, “The Money-Makers and the Money-Appropriators”, and it’s nauseating.) They describe our financial industry as “fundamentally moral and productive” (p.156)—the industry that you may recall stole millions of homes and laundered money for terrorists. They assert that no sane person could believe that Steve Wozniack got lucky—I maintain no sane person could think otherwise. Yes, he was brilliant; yes, he invented good things. But he had to be at the right place at the right time, in a society that supported and educated him and provided him with customers and employees. You didn’t build that.

Indeed, perhaps most baffling is that they themselves seem to admit that the really great innovators, such as Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, were scientists—but scientists are almost never billionaires. Even the common counterexample, Thomas Edison, is largely false; he mainly plagiarized from Nikola Tesla and appropriated the ideas of his employees. Newton, Einstein and Darwin were all at least upper-middle class (as was Tesla, by the way—he did not die poor as is sometimes portrayed), but they weren’t spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich the way that Steve Jobs and Andrew Carnegie were and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are.

Some people clearly have more talent than others, and some people clearly work harder than others, and some people clearly produce more than others. But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that a single man can work so hard, be so talented, produce so much that he can deserve to have as much wealth as a nation of millions of people produces in a year. Yet, Mark Zuckerberg has that much wealth. Remind me again what he did? Did he cure a disease that was killing millions? Did he colonize another planet? Did he discover a fundamental law of nature? Oh yes, he made a piece of software that’s particularly convenient for talking to your friends. Clearly that is worth the GDP of Latvia. Not that silly Darwin fellow, who only uncovered the fundamental laws of life itself.

In the grand tradition of reducing complex systems to simple numerical values, I give book 1 a 7/10, book 2 a 5/10, and book 3 a 2/10. Equal is Unfair is about 25% book 1, 25% book 2, and 50% book 3, so altogether their final score is, drumroll please: 4/10. Maybe read the first half, I guess? That’s where most of the good stuff is.

How Reagan ruined America

JDN 2457408

Or maybe it’s Ford?

The title is intentionally hyperbolic; despite the best efforts of Reagan and his ilk, America does yet survive. Indeed, as Obama aptly pointed out in his recent State of the Union, we appear to be on an upward trajectory once more. And as you’ll see in a moment, many of the turning points actually seem to be Gerald Ford, though it was under Reagan that the trends really gained steam.

But I think it’s quite remarkable just how much damage Reaganomics did to the economy and society of the United States. It’s actually a turning point in all sorts of different economic policy measures; things were going well from the 1940s to the 1970s, and then suddenly in the 1980s they take a turn for the worse.

The clearest example is inequality. From the World Top Incomes Database, here’s the graph I featured on my Patreon page of income shares in the United States:

top_income_shares_pretty.png

Inequality was really bad during the Roaring Twenties (no surprise to anyone who has read The Great Gatsby), then after the turmoil of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War 2, inequality was reduced to a much lower level.

During this period, what I like to call the Golden Age of American Capitalism:

Instead of almost 50% in the 1920s, the top 10% now received about 33%.

Instead of over 20% in the 1920s, the top 1% now received about 10%.

Instead of almost 5% in the 1920s, the top 0.01% now received about 1%.

This pattern continued to hold, remarkably stable, until 1980. Then, it completely unraveled. Income shares of the top brackets rose, and continued to rise, ever since (fluctuating with the stock market of course). Now, we’re basically back right where we were in the 1920s; the top 10% gets 50%, the top 1% gets 20%, and the top 0.01% gets 4%.

Not coincidentally, we see the same pattern if we look at the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay, as shown here in a graph from the Economic Policy Institute:

Snapshot_CEO_pay_main

Up until 1980, the ratio in pay between CEOs and their average workers was steady around 20 to 1. From that point forward, it began to rise—and rise, and rise. It continued to rise under every Presidential administration, and actually hit its peak in 2000, under Bill Clinton, at an astonishing 411 to 1 ratio. In the 2000s it fell to about 250 to 1 (hurray?), and has slightly declined since then to about 230 to 1.

By either measure, we can see a clear turning point in US inequality—it was low and stable, until Reagan came along, when it began to explode.

Part of this no doubt is the sudden shift in tax rates. The top marginal tax rates on income were over 90% from WW2 to the 1960s; then JFK reduced them to 70%, which is probably close to the revenue-maximizing rate. There they stayed, until—you know the refrain—along came Reagan, and by the end of his administration he had dropped the top marginal rate to 28%. It then was brought back up to about 35%, where it has basically remained, sometimes getting as high as 40%.

US_income_tax_rates

Another striking example is the ratio between worker productivity and wages. The Economic Policy Institute has a very detailed analysis of this, but I think their graph by itself is quite striking:

productivity_wages

Starting around the 1970s, and then rapidly accelerating from the 1980s onward, we see a decoupling of productivity from wages. Productivity has continued to rise at more or less the same rate, but wages flatten out completely, even falling for part of the period.

For those who still somehow think Republicans are fiscally conservative, take a look at this graph of the US national debt:

US_federal_debt

We were at a comfortable 30-40% of GDP range, actually slowly decreasing—until Reagan. We got back on track to reduce the debt during the mid-1990s—under Bill Clinton—and then went back to raising it again once George W. Bush got in office. It ballooned as a result of the Great Recession, and for the past few years Obama has been trying to bring it back under control.

Of course, national debt is not nearly as bad as most people imagine it to be. If Reagan had only raised the national debt in order to stop unemployment, that would have been fine—but he did not.

Unemployment had never been above 10% since World War 2 (and in fact reached below 4% in the 1960s!) and yet all the sudden hit almost 11%, shortly after Reagan:
US_unemployment
Let’s look at that graph a little closer. Right now the Federal Reserve uses 5% as their target unemployment rate, the supposed “natural rate of unemployment” (a lot of economists use this notion, despite there being almost no empirical support for it whatsoever). If I draw red lines at 5% unemployment and at 1981, the year Reagan took office, look at what happens.

US_unemployment_annotated

For most of the period before 1981, we spent most of our time below the 5% line, jumping above it during recessions and then coming back down; for most of the period after 1981, we spent most of our time above the 5% line, even during economic booms.

I’ve drawn another line (green) where the most natural break appears, and it actually seems to be the Ford administration; so maybe I can’t just blame Reagan. But something happened in the last quarter of the 20th century that dramatically changed the shape of unemployment in America.

Inflation is at least ambiguous; it was pretty bad in the 1940s and 1950s, and then settled down in the 1960s for awhile before picking up in the 1970s, and actually hit its worst just before Reagan took office:

US_inflation

Then there’s GDP growth.

US_GDP_growth

After World War 2, our growth rate was quite volatile, rising as high as 8% (!) in some years, but sometimes falling to zero or slightly negative. Rates over 6% were common during booms. On average GDP growth was quite good, around 4% per year.

In 1981—the year Reagan took office—we had the worst growth rate in postwar history, an awful -1.9%. Coming out of that recession we had very high growth of about 7%, but then settled into the new normal: More stable growth rates, yes, but also much lower. Never again did our growth rate exceed 4%, and on average it was more like 2%. In 2009, Reagan’s record recession was broken with the Great Recession, a drop of almost 3% in a single year.

GDP per capita tells a similar story, of volatile but fast growth before Reagan followed by stable but slow growth thereafter:

US_GDP_per_capita

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Reagan for all of this. A lot of things have happened in the late 20th century, after all. In particular, the OPEC oil crisis is probably responsible for many of these 1970s shocks, and when Nixon moved us at last off the Bretton Woods gold standard, it was probably the right decision, but done at a moment of crisis instead of as the result of careful planning.

Also, while the classical gold standard was terrible, the Bretton Woods system actually had some things to recommend it. It required strict capital controls and currency exchange regulations, but the period of highest economic growth and lowest inequality in the United States—the period I’m calling the Golden Age of American Capitalism—was in fact the same period as the Bretton Woods system.

Some of these trends started before Reagan, and all of them continued in his absence—many of them worsening as much or more under Clinton. Reagan took office during a terrible recession, and either contributed to the recovery or at least did not prevent it.

The President only has very limited control over the economy in any case; he can set a policy agenda, but Congress must actually implement it, and policy can take years to show its true effects. Yet given Reagan’s agenda of cutting top tax rates, crushing unions, and generally giving large corporations whatever they want, I think he bears at least some responsibility for turning our economy in this very bad direction.